Israel's Iranian Jews grapple with possible strike on their homeland

While he fears an Iranian bomb, a spice seller from Tehran vows that Iranians love peace. One restaurant cook from Isfahan is baffled by 'how things went so wrong.'

Vahid Salemi/AP
In this photo taken on Feb. 16, a Jewish Iranian woman (c.) prays between two Muslim women at the tomb of biblical prophet Daniel, in the city of Susa, some 450 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. Amid the talk about a possible Israeli attack on Iran's suspect nuclear program are the thousands of Iranian Jews still living in Iran and could be caught in the middle.

Amid the tense atmosphere between Israel and Iran this Passover season, many of Israel's 250,000 citizens of Iranian descent are finding themselves in a complicated and uncomfortable position.

''I am from Tehran, it is my hometown. I know the Iranians love peace. But now I am afraid we won't have another choice but to bomb the nuclear installations in Iran,'' says Zion Shimoni, who sells spices –  including Iranian black dried lemons brought through third countries – in this Persian mini-enclave of Tel Aviv.

But he's also pragmatic.

''I know the Iranians are trying to get rid of Ahmadinejad but I don't think they will manage in time and an atomic bomb in the hands of Ahmadinejad is a dangerous thing,'' he adds.

Indeed, Mr. Shimoni and his fellow Iranian-Israelis have broader perspectives on a possible Israeli war with Iran than many of their countrymen. They have tangible, positive memories of Iran and Iranians and some also count relatives among the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran who, some fear, could face reprisals if there is an Israeli strike. Their views will not alter the current course of the confrontation, but they do provide a glimmer of hope of an eventual rapprochement in relations between the peoples of the two countries.

Molok Shamshiri, an Iranian-Israeli restaurant cook, recalls relations with Muslims back in Iran as being ''so good it is hard to describe.''

''My Muslim neighbor would come make tea for me every Sabbath because she knew I could not light the fire [due to an orthodox Jewish prohibition],'' says Ms. Shamshiri, a religious woman who covers her hair for modesty. ''The Muslims would help us with parties, celebrations, weddings. They would help with everything and not for money. They would always ask if we needed anything.''

Shamshiri, who takes pride in her Ghormeh Sabzi, a famous herbal soup, says: ''It is hard for me to understand how things went so wrong. But I am sure the Iranian people are still the same people. Neither do the Iranian people want war. I know them.''

After she left Iran, Shamshiri continued visiting frequently up until the Islamic revolution of 1979 and also sent her children on visits to get to know the old country. Her sister still lives there.

Her face lights up when she is asked where she is from.

''Isfahan, a city that has everything good in this world. The four seasons there are like clockwork. In the spring, you have the sunshine, the chirping of the birds, and the flowers. It's a calm city, a paradise.''

Clothing store owner Albert Moradian has feelings for Iran that are perhaps even stronger. ''To sum up in one word, I feel longing,'' he says, tears welling up in his eyes. Turning up a CD of Iranian classical music singer Mohammed Shajarian, Mr. Moradian says: ''I am Iranian in my behavior, my accent, and the demands I make of my children to respect everyone.''

Mr. Moradian, who was a lieutenant in the Iranian army, left after the revolution because he feared the new regime would take steps against officers who served under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. ''Of course I have good memories. I think the Iranian people are a special people, not of wars, but of music, poetry, and soul.'' He says he still visits Iran ''through the Internet'' and dreams of the day when he can take his children there.

''Unfortunately, the media here conveys a picture as if Iran is only Ahmadinejad. The media is mobilized and I don't believe any report from it.'' he says. Moradian is against Israel's striking the nuclear installations. He says that the Iranian people will eventually overthrow the regime.

Some Iranian Israelis fear an Israeli strike will cause the Iranian regime to retaliate against the Jewish community, one of the world's oldest. ''This is an unstable and unpredictable regime that can behave differently from day to day,'' says Kamal Penhasi, editor of Israel's Farsi language newspaper Shahyad. ''I can envision them using criminals to attack Jews while denying the regime is involved.''

But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born specialist on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, doubts there would be a backlash against Iranian Jews.''The Iranian regime always tries to portray itself as anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish. Hurting its own Jewish population would undermine that and be very counterproductive.''

Mr. Javedanfar says that despite the regime's demonization of Israel since 1979, popular views of Israel in Iran are ''far more positive than any other country in the Middle East.'' This, he says, could be impacted by an Israeli strike.

At the restaurant, Shamshiri says she does not believe there will be a war. ''I hope we find a peaceful solution. The Muslims and we have all grown up on the same food. At the end of the day, we know each other well.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.